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A strange, strange spring. And who's the next surprise?

  For a guy who's won the Belgium Grand Prix three times, at Spa, racing NASCAR Trucks at Charlotte Motor Speedway looked pretty easy for 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen (Photo: Toyota Motorsports) 

    By Mike Mulhern


    Can a Formula One world champion find happiness in NASCAR?

    Hey, can a 20-year-old in just his second NASCAR start win the Daytona 500?
    Can a driver running for a team based in Denver, Colorado, win the legendary Southern 500?
    Yes, it's been a bit of a strange spring on the stock car trail.
    Trevor Bayne at Daytona….Danica Patrick at Las Vegas….Regan Smith at Darlington…now F1's Kimi Raikkonen...
    And it's only May.
    Another Formula One dude checking out NASCAR? What's with that?
    Wonder who or what will be the next surprise around here?

    At the moment, Saturday morning, the Woods' big-rig hauler sits idle over at the shop on 49, in the shadows of the backside of Charlotte Motor Speedway, rather than here in the garage. And Len and Eddie Wood can only wait.
    Bayne is still sidelined while recovering from that mysterious ailment, and even though his Daytona victory put the Woods in the All-Star race, they're skipping it, rather than plug another driver in: "You dance with the one that brung you," Len Wood says plaintively.
    The Woods are clearly pained by the surprising turn of events that has kept their new driver on the sidelines since Talladega in mid-April. Bayne did some laps at Rockingham Speedway Wednesday but didn't seem quite up to strength, though at first there were thoughts he could run here and at Iowa in Sunday's Nationwide race. But then those plans were put on hold. Blurred vision and pain in his left arm appear the chief issues right now, seemingly related to a bad reaction he had to a bug bite in early April. But even several days at the Mayo Clinic couldn't find a clear answer.



  Trevor Bayne and Danica Patrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  It's been a spring of surprises on the stock car circuit, first with Bayne's Daytona upset, then Patrick's good run at Vegas, and Smith's Darlington surprise, and now Raikkonen's successful NASCAR debut.

   Bayne, just 20 and with only a couple of Sprint Cup races under his belt, is a straight-up overnight sensation here.
   Patrick, well, the high-profile racer is in her second season of part-time NASCAR Nationwide work – on a break to run the Indy circuit – and she's improved enough to where those at Indianapolis Motor Speedway right now sense she is now prepared to make the full leap into NASCAR in 2012.
   Smith, well, he's had several years now to work at becoming an 'instant'  NASCAR celebrity.
   Smith – a good kid, without the 'attitude' that too many of today's NASCAR stars affect – has been at this Cup stuff since the spring of 2007, when he was paired with then-part-time Mark Martin at Bobby Ginns'. And his first claim to fame was that dramatic 'win' at Talladega in the fall of 2008 in a DEI car, a win over Tony Stewart that NASCAR officials overturned with a controversial penalty for passing below the yellow line.
   That 'win' could have propelled Smith faster on his career, but when DEI shut down at the end of that season, he was left drifting. Colorado's Barney Visser, an ex-Vietnam Airborne paratrooper, now furniture magnate and self-made millionaire, signed him during that off-season, and two years later Smith is finally having his days in the sun.
    And, to be honest, the guy who made Smith a 500-to-1 bet to win Darlington should have his head examined. This season Smith, crew chief Pete Rondeau, and veteran GM Joe Garone have been solid top-10 runners, albeit without a lot of finishing luck.
    Check out  http://bit.ly/edLngI  and  http://bit.ly/m6OQ8o



   Regan Smith: no overnight success. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Now Trevor Bayne is a rather traditional NASCAR racer, from just over the mountains in Knoxville, Tenn.
    So is Smith, from just north of Watkins Glen.
    Raikkonen is a bit more exotic. Like, how many NASCAR racers live in Switzerland? (Of course if he wants to be serious about NASCAR he'll have to move over here.) Does he really have 'Iceman' tattooed?
    Might he be the next Juan Pablo Montoya?
    What is it about NASCAR that is so appealing to these worldly-wise stars?
    And what to make of this Kimi Raikkonen? A Formula 1 driver (McLaren, Ferrari), making his first NASCAR start, at Charlotte of all places, and with Perky Jerky as a sponsor?
    You couldn't make this stuff up. ( http://bit.ly/jn0n3w )
    Despite pre-race worries that this guy would be in over his head, that Raikkonen, 31, would be a PR dud, he turned in a very good performance, all in all, not just on the track, but out of the car as well – a 14-minute interview before the race, a four-minute post-race interview. Most NASCAR stars don't give the media that much of their time.
    Raikkonen seems rather cool about all this, certainly not flustered. But then he's won at Spa, three times. Magny-Cours. Monaco. Silverstone. Turkey, Hungary, Canada, Spain, Australia, Malaysia….


   From F1 to NASCAR Trucks, Kimi Raikkonen makes it look pretty easy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    It's a brief deal, perhaps. Or maybe longer, depending on how Raikkonen likes it. He can go back to Rally racing, his full-time job since leaving F1 at the end of 2009.
    Next up is Saturday's Nationwide race, in a Joe Nemechek-Kyle Busch deal of some sort. From there, who knows…though some might be pushing to put him in a Cup car at Sonoma, the first of the sport's two road course events.
   "Hopefully I can get to run some Cup races.  That would be nice," the soft-spoken Finnish racer says.  
   "But there's not a lot of planning done, and I really don't want to hurry up."
   Naturally NASCAR officials were watching Friday night's race closely to see how Raikkonen handled himself, and now he's been cleared to run Nationwide.

     Perky Jerky? Doesn't sound like an F1 sponsor (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

    Remembering how quickly Montoya made the transition to stock cars back in 2006, after abruptly leaving F1, it probably shouldn't be surprising that Raikkonen seems to have this new game under control already.
    Montoya dropped by Raikkonen's hauler the other day to chat. "He was nice to see.  I haven't seen him in for a long time," Raikkonen said. That actually was the summer of 2006, at Indianapolis.
   "I've seen some results from what he has done; but it is not very easy to follow well in Europe – it's not often you see them on TV. 
    "You don't know how to drive the car, and people come tell you and try to teach you. People are nice, and they try to help wherever they can.
    "So far it's been good. At least we really didn't destroy anything."

   Friday night's race, Raikkonen said, had "too many cautions. Every time I would feel the car would start to run better, then you would have a caution…and then it would take the track a long time before the handling comes back."
   The tires, Kyle Busch – winner of the race and also owner of Raikkonen's Truck – said were a bit difficult to handle. This track of course is notoriously fickle and temperature sensitive, and increasingly rough. And Raikkonen, with only two days of pre-race testing, didn't have a good time in the practices leading up to Friday's feature.
    "I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Goodyear, so I'll say this the best way I can," Busch said, "but hopefully they bring the Cup tire and it will be a lot easier transition" for Raikkonen.
   Goodyear's Truck tires here are harder because the Trucks are faster through the corners.
    "The Nationwide race, with the correct tire, it should be a better feeling car," Busch says. "He should feel a little more grip and should be able to drive it a little bit harder.  The engines are a little bit the same, though the cars go through the air a little bit better.  Traffic will be kind of the same as this."
   Raikkonen not only finished, he finished a solid 15th, in a caution-filled race. And he survived a few wall slaps of his own, and he dodged some of the wrecks. Not a bad night's work for a newcomer.
    "You would rather be more high up," Raikkonen said. "But (from) how it felt in the morning, I was pretty pleased with how it felt in the race.
    "For sure there is still a lot to learn, and improve. But another race it will be better."
    Restarts were tricky, Raikkonen said. "It's just more to know what to do on the restarts, where to put the car. 
    "Sometimes you push a bit too hard, and you run wide, and you lose a lot of places.
    "But not really anything surprisingly difficult."
    All in all, this guy seems remarkably cool and calm about all this stuff.
    Raikkonen says he has not particular plans laid out. He watched NASCAR's Homestead finale last fall, told his agent to check out NASCAR, and Busch, when approached, said yes.
   "I didn't have any expectations when I came here. I wanted to see how it is," Raikkonen says. 
    "We'll see how it goes and what the future will bring.  We go step-by-step and see what happens."
    So Formula One is now in his past? "There was many reasons why I stopped. I don't know if it's going to be forever.  Right now I wasn't really missing Formula 1. I wanted to try other things, and I had the perfect opportunity.
    "I had time to come here and see how the NASCAR is.  I'm happy how things panned out. 
     "I never really have said that I am never going to go back (to F1); maybe I will never go, or maybe I go.
     "I have no plans for next year. I didn't have any plans for this year before January.
     "It might take some time to know exactly what I will do."
     But then, depending on how well he does here next Saturday, maybe not that long after all….


      Mentor Kyle Busch (R) and F1 star Kimi Raikkonen (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

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